faith and doubt at ground zero
a photo of rabbi brad hirschfield
INTERVIEW: rabbi brad hirschfield

[Why did you go down to Ground Zero? What was it like for you?]

... Some time between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there was a piece of me that said, "I've got to go down there." I felt really drawn to go down there.

I went down, and the experience was unbelievable, because I felt two things simultaneously -- both fully, 100 percent one thing and 100 percent another -- but they were diametrically opposed. There was a piece of me that looked at that site and said, "I'm looking into the face of evil. This is what evil looks like. I don't think in my life I've ever seen it before, and now I have. The response to evil is you fight evil; you destroy evil; and now we will have to go and we will kill and we will destroy until this evil is no more."

I really felt that. Not partially -- not with a piece of me, not with a part of me. I felt that 100 percent.

Then I also felt, at the same moment ... "So maybe it ends here. Maybe it's not about fighting any more, and maybe it's about figuring out what we do next that isn't about a violent response, that is about reaching across the kind of chasms that seem to be opening up between human beings -- that I felt inside myself."

I don't know exactly how to hold those two together, although it's interesting for me that both of those positions are inside the tradition that I'm rooted in. Basically the two things I just told you are the two Messiah stories in Jewish tradition. One is the Messiah of Gog and Magog -- the war of good against evil. "We'll get it all sorted out and the good guys will win on God's side. It'll be very clear who's right and who's wrong, and won't that feel great?"

The other one is the Messiah story of lions and lambs lying down together, and in which nothing we know about now will obtain then, because the kind of peace and abundance and wholeness that will reign will make all the solutions we have now unnecessary.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox rabbi, is the vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City. Here, he talks about the time he spent at Ground Zero; how he answers the question "Where was God on Sept. 11?"; and why it's essential to recognize the role that religion played in the attacks. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002.

I guess what I learned for the first time in my life is that we better have both of those stories alive. What I wanted to make sure was, I don't know which one to deploy, [and] when. But I know if you're always thinking about both when you do either, that'll be helpful.

Let's go back to Ground Zero. ... What is it you saw?

I know what I felt. I saw a hole in the ground. But what I felt was, suddenly, I remember it rushed over me -- that there were thousands of people buried there. I saw a place where thousands of people were killed, and it was totally overwhelming. I mean, what do you do with that?

I had never been anywhere where there was that much death that immediately. I've been in concentration camps -- I didn't see it happen, [but] I saw the place where it happened.

Religion drove those planes into those buildings. Anyone who loves religious experience, including me, better begin to own that there is a serious shadow side to this thing.

I looked into this, and it was still burning. I don't know what I thought, but I didn't expect it would still be burning 10, 11, 12 days later. What do I know? The smoke was such a powerful image, and the death was -- "Pow! That's evil." That complete disregard for human life -- I had never seen destruction like that -- never. I had never seen anything like that.

At one point, I sat down on the ground, and I just started to cry. I didn't know what else to do. I sat down and started to cry, because -- thousands of people. I know this sounds crazy because I'm not -- I'm being completely inarticulate -- but that was the feeling. What I saw made me feel exactly like how I sound; there are no words, there are no answers. This was the most death I've ever seen, and all those feelings well up inside you.

What kind of work did you do at Ground Zero? Did you talk to people?

The story that stands out the most from Ground Zero when I was down there was of a firefighter who walked up to me -- I think I was already sitting on the ground -- and I think he must have come up to see if I needed help. He came up and said, "Are you OK?" and I said, "Yes, I'm crying." He said, "Are you a rabbi?" I said, "Yes," and he said, "I'm Jewish," and he sat down and he started crying with me. There weren't any words. I mean, there really were no words. I put my arms around him, and we just cried.

I can't tell you that I said anything terribly intelligent to anyone standing at Ground Zero. I think the most powerful feeling I take away from it was the insufficiency of all the words. ... The words weren't enough. So that was the story from down there that I think I'll always have with me.

I don't even remember his name. I don't remember his name, and I think the beautiful part is [that] I don't need to. It was really pure connection. Maybe this is a funny thing for a rabbi to say, but from my end, it had nothing to do with him being Jewish; I couldn't care less. What I care about is that there was this intense moment of connection. I think in the sharing of those feelings, "healing" is too easy a word, but something felt a little more alive in that place of death. ...

When I went down to Ground Zero itself, it wasn't formal work as a chaplain -- that was in other places and other kinds of conversations. I went there, I think, mostly for me. I went because I needed to feel directly connected to what was going on.

I guess another part of it I really remember that was actually quite uplifting for me was there was a whole city created there around the site, where people were fed and people were clothed and people were counseled and people talked and people connected. So it was really like, in some ways, an ideal community, which I know sounds perverse. But if you look at all the stuff that I think at least I would want to have in a community in which I lived -- the kind of nurturing and caretaking and strength and responsibility and organization -- a lot of it was there.

I look back on it now, and the question that lingers for me is, how do you create that, [but] not off of tragedy? How do you mobilize all of those forces without first feeling assaulted or victimized? Because if it takes that to bring out the best in us, then better not to have it at all.

[Was your own image of God] altered, subtly or dramatically, after Sept. 11?

... I guess I constantly struggle with that, because oftentimes the God that I want is not the God I want to believe in. There's a piece of me that wants a very personal, very nurturing, very caring, very make-it-all-OK God -- the God to whom I can wake up in the morning when one of my kids is sick, maybe really sick, and say, "Please, please, make this better."

I know I need that God. I also know it's ridiculous at another level to believe in that God, because if that God exists, that God was dethroned a long time ago. Whether that God was dethroned at Ground Zero or in Rwanda or in Auschwitz, I don't know. But that God was dethroned a long time ago.

So I guess for me, when I think about image of God, it's mostly the image of wrestling the God that's the projection of all the nurturing and caring that I think we want, and the God that is this often inexplicable, intense force for life that motivates us to have the struggle. It's the second God who I think does less damage. And it's the second God that I -- when I think about it -- think is the more mature and appropriate God to turn to. Yet I also know there are moments I feel like I want that other God.

I guess mostly what I want is to be able to always have it so I have access to wrestling with both of them. Right? Because the God that I want when my kid is sick or I'm holding her and want to comfort her, whatever that's about -- that God's an utter failure. Yet the God who I can distance and say, "You know, that's not how God works. Don't expect those things from God, because that's not who God is -- "I know when people are suffering, that conversation is not so helpful.

I just would like for me to hear myself, to be able to talk better about and more people to talk more about the fact that we need and want both, and how you keep both those gods in play. I guess that's is a way of saying my image of God is of an infinite God; and an infinite God has an infinite number of faces and expressions. ...

What has Sept. 11 done? ...

Since Sept. 11, I know that both that close, imminent, nurturing, loving, justice-making God that I so want-- that the desire is really real. And it's not that that God isn't there -- I know it sounds like it's a childish God. It's that that God is no more there than the God who has nothing to do with those things.

Or if you want [me to put it] more extremely, that the belief in that God who is that nurturing, imminent, close, loving, justice-making God, and the absolute disbelief in what almost everyone means when they say "God," are equally sacred. I think I always felt that, but I'm more honest about it now since Sept. 11. They are equally sacred -- that act of disbelief in what most of us have been taught is God is as religious a position as belief in that God that lets us get through the long, dark nights in our lives -- they're both real. ...

If anything, now after Sept. 11, I'm a lot more assertive about the fact that they're both real. If having to hold both of them together makes people uncomfortable, then let's talk about that, because I'm not willing to give up either. ...

Have people asked you where God was on Sept. 11? How do you answer that?

... Yes, since Sept. 11, people keep asking me, "Where was God?" And they think because I'm a rabbi, I have answers. ...

There is a part of me that wants to yell back at them, "What? You're asking now? Why now? Why didn't you ask about Bosnia or Rwanda or Hiroshima or gas chambers and concentration camps or go back through all of human history? I don't understand. Now you're asking 'Where was God?' How many people go to bed hungry every night in the richest country in the world? And now you're asking about 'Where is the God of justice?'"

I don't mean to demean their question, so I always have to kind of check myself, go back and try and understand. What they are looking for is what all of us are looking for: some way to let real life, with the pain, not blow us apart -- probably a bad use of terms. We're all looking for that.

I guess the most important part of that conversation is to begin to identify how all of us are looking for that, rather than use some notion of God or some doctrine or some religion to provide easy answers, when we know deep down they don't really exist. So I can make someone feel good for 10 minutes doing the stuff I don't believe. But I know, and they know, that 10 minutes later, the same questions come flooding back. ...

I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. ...

Isn't it fair for people to have a hope that [there] might be [a God of justice], in other words, the image of a God [who intervenes]?

I don't think hoping for God to intervene is childlike or naive. I think it's actually quite compelling, and I think, at some level, I really feel that. But it's so hard, because -- when? The people flying those airplanes thought God was intervening, too. So it's not that you shouldn't hope for it. But you have to understand how that hope can be used to justify both that which is most nurturing and most horrific. ...

[Some people who made it out of the] World Trade Center say with great militance, "God saved me." But what about the other 3,000 people? Have you encountered this?

Yes, sure. As long as you can really feel that "God saved me" without feeling that God didn't save them, then I think it's a beautiful belief. ...

When people come and say, "I feel I was saved by God because my wife called me and sent me to the market" -- this is a real story. Someone calls me and explains to me, "I was saved by God on Sept. 11. My wife called me, and reached me between Metro North. When I got on the subway to go downtown to stop and do an errand, that was the hand of God."

And it's like, yes. But now what do you say to the person who's the wife who didn't call the husband, or the husband who didn't call the wife, and who now just has a photograph and not even a body to bury? That God didn't love them? They were being punished for some sin?

See, it's not that I want people to give up on the feeling that "God saved me." I have felt that in my own life, and I love that feeling. I think that you have to just be careful how you look at the people who God didn't save, so to speak. That's the problem. It's not that it's bad to feel we've been saved by God and feeling grateful and feeling blessed. It's just, how do you look at the people who didn't have that experience? And subtly or not so subtly, are you communicating that they're less blessed, they're less loved, they're less religious?

I heard stories like this in parts of the Jewish community, about people actually counting up the disproportionate number of Orthodox Jews that were saved relative to the other Jews. I was angry, I was ashamed, I was horrified. It's like, you want to shake them. "What are you talking about? That's the God you believe in? The God who counted up whether they waited this number of minutes or that number of minutes between milk and meat or lit candles on Friday night or went to the synagogue at the appropriate day? And you actually believe that's the best way that God has to communicate is to exterminate other human beings?"

So it's not that I mind people feeling saved by God when it breaks right; it's the hubris that comes in for the people for whom it doesn't that scares me. If we can figure out a way to feel absolutely blessed and loved by God when it breaks right, without looking at other people and saying, "Oh, well, they're cursed because they're not good enough, loved enough, religious enough," whatever the language will be. I want to be in close connection to that personal God. But that personal God also justifies a lot of nastiness. ...

What about in the case of people who were saved ... and religious elders say, "Well, God's ways are mysterious. There is a plan, and your work isn't done yet, but theirs was?"

If God's ways are mysterious, then don't tell me about the plan. Live with the mystery. It's upsetting, it's scary, it's painful, it's deep, it's rich, and it's interesting; but no plan. That's what mystery is. It's all of those things.

You want plan? Then tell me about plan. But if you're going to tell me about how the plan saved you, you'd better also be able to explain how the plan killed them. And the test of that has nothing to do with saying it in your synagogue or your church. The test of that has to do with going and saying it to the person who just buried someone and look in their eyes and tell them, "God's plan was to blow your loved one apart." Look at them and tell them that God's plan was that their children should go to bed every night for the rest of their lives without a parent. If you can say that, well, at least you're honest. I don't worship the same God. But that at least has integrity. ...

It's too easy. That's my problem with the answer. Not that I think they're being inauthentic when people say it or being dishonest; it's just too damn easy. It's easy because it gets God off the hook, and it's easy because it gets their religious beliefs off the hook, and right now everything is on the hook.

It seems to me what we really need is to figure out how these different faiths we have can help us be on the hook and actually ask better questions about that God that we want to believe in, or understand how it would be OK to disbelieve in that God. ...

What does evil mean to you? Is it inside of us -- the worst that we're capable of? Is there some strange force outside of us? Have you ever had a personal experience of it, in which you felt the presence of evil?

... I guess for me the discussion of evil starts [with], "If it's easily defined, it probably isn't really evil." That's all the stuff that we call "evil" that just makes us pissed off. It probably isn't evil. Evil is the stuff that is so overwhelming, that is so big that it defies categorization. Is it inside of us? Is it outside of us? I'm not sure what the distinction is, because if "outside of us" means that there's a devil out there who's like orchestrating this stuff, no, I don't believe that. If "it's inside of us" means, can it ever be that big through the hand of one person alone? I don't believe that either. So I don't know if it's inside or outside or some combination. But I know it's about-- It's the overwhelming destruction and disregard for the value of life.

The place I think I first felt that kind of evil was actually walking in Birkenau, in the death camp in Poland; Auschwitz, too. I think that I felt that that was real evil, because everything I had been trained as a Jew, as a rabbi, all that stuff, was insufficient to the moment. For me, one of the definitions of evil [is] when you realize you're up against something that nothing has fully prepared you for, and yet it demands a response. If you can rely on all the stuff you came in with, it's probably not evil. It's probably bad, and it probably needs to be dealt with, but it's not evil in that big sense.

To be some place where there's that much death and that much silence, and nothing, nothing, nothing seems to hold it together -- that's evil. That's it. I think I even felt it more there than at Ground Zero. Maybe it's just the Ground Zero stuff is too new to know. It's too new to know. At the very least, I can imagine fighting what I saw at Ground Zero. So maybe it's not evil in the same way. I don't even exactly know how you fight what I've experienced on the trips to Poland that I've made.

Are there degrees of evil, hierarchies of evil?

I'm sure there are, but I don't know exactly what that means. I mean, in the end, I'm really not a philosopher. I'm a rabbi and that's what-- I'm sure there are ways to be tighter and more organized and efficient about the discussion of evil. For me, at least, it's not so helpful.

Do you think Sept. 11 has awakened people to the [reality of evil], or introduced something new into the discussion of evil? [Are we] a little less awkward, a little less embarrassed, about even using that word?

... Two things happened after Sept. 11 with our use of "evil," and I feel torn. Part of me actually knows it's very important, because we're using the word "evil" now. We were afraid to do that, and that was a mistake, because if you can't label anything evil, a kind of paralysis sets in. I become worried that, if nothing is evil, do people somehow harden themselves to real suffering when it's going on? Because they don't-- When they look at real evil, it's not just that it hurts other people; it hurts you. It destabilizes you. It frightens you. So we insulate ourselves from that. Maybe what's happened now is that is we're not prepared to insulate ourselves from that. That's a good thing, because when we insulate ourselves, we actually are insulating ourselves also from others, and that's disaster. The downside is that you reintroduce evil.

There's also a lot of cheap evil in play. Everything that bothers me is now evil. Nothing will get accomplished if I can't label it evil. So I feel really torn. We had thousands of years in which, religion especially, boy, did we love evil. We thrived on evil. Show me evil, and I've got work to do. But it was cheap evil. Usually evil there was just synonymous with folks who didn't agree with me, dress like me, eat like me or look like me. It was very mobilizing and very devastating in ugly ways.

Then we go through a phase, maybe until Sept. 11, in modern Western culture, [where] nothing is evil. We knew how much damage evil had done, as language and as discourse. So we got rid of it completely. But that wasn't helpful, either, for the reasons I said before -- because it paralyzes you if you can't make any claims about anything.

So now we've got to figure out, "How do you put evil back into play, but not have it be this self-serving definition, which is, how do I use language [that doesn't] provoke someone to go to war to kill anything they don't already agree with?"

One of the consultants on this film, Ron Rosenbaum [has traveled] across the world talking to scholars who have spent their life riveted by this man [Adolf Hitler]. And he could hardly find anyone who'd use the word "evil" in relation to Hitler, and kept talking about his bad childhood and the brutal father and low self-esteem. ...

Right, well, that's aversion. We use psychology and anthropology and political science -- analytic tools -- to keep us from making any decisions. Now, I understand that's because most of the decision-makers -- and that did come out of religious traditions and Western life -- didn't do such a great job. They made very forceful decisions, but they led to pretty horrific results. So we stepped away from all that. But if stepping away from bad decisions leaves us making no decisions at all, we're no better off. ...

The psychoanalyzing and the explaining away so we never have to use the word evil, and just relegate it to bad decisions, it makes it more comfortable for us, because then everything can be put in some knowable box. Things are much safer that way, but it also becomes incredibly paralyzing. ...

When you look at the face of bin Laden, and you look at him laughing on television about how the people got on the planes, what is your response? ...

When I looked at bin Laden's face, and there's that tape of him sitting with his friends and they're laughing about the amount of destruction and having their olives and tea-- I think I'm supposed to feel a kind of rage that I don't feel. Because, is he evil? I don't know what that would mean. I know what it means to name what happened as evil, and it's not because I'm afraid to call him evil. I just think to name -- if evil can be located in one human being, it's actually too small. I'm not so interested in him, per se. I'm much more interested in being able to own the evil that is those actions, and ask how we respond to that. I'm angry.

Obviously now, I don't want to sit down and have coffee with him and figure out how we can reach some understanding, because that is not going to happen. But that worrying about him as an individual makes this seem much too small. He's one person, and things like this don't happen because of one person. It's almost like labeling him evil makes it too easy. Get rid of him; get rid of the problem. It doesn't work that way.

Is he a bad person? Yes, I'm fairly certain he's a bad person. You want me to tell you he's an evil person, I'll tell you he's an evil person. But fighting evil doesn't end when you fight bin Laden. It doesn't seem to me that getting rid of him is going to make the world all that much safer. It doesn't mean it's not necessary. It just means, if we think that's sufficient, boy, are we naive. ...

Talk to me about ... the big questions coming out of the rubble for you about religion, in your mind.

Look, it's very simple for me. There's no dodging this. This was done in the name of religion, and I care deeply about religion. It's amazing how good [it] is at mobilizing people to do awful, murderous things. It's not just their religion; it's religion as an experience. I can't hide from that.

Anyone who loves religious experience, including me, better begin to own [that] there is a serious shadow side to this thing, because it motivates. It mobilizes and it creates big ways of thinking and understanding the world. It creates remarkable cover, because it can divide the world up -- who's good and who's bad, who's right and who's wrong; and as long as I'm on the right side, I can do no evil. Right?

We all better be willing to address that, because this isn't about which religion is right, and this isn't about "Let's just look at the nice parts of our traditions." This is about what religious experience does. ... There is this dark side to it, and it's a dark side that I've had to wrestle with really personally. I spent a part of my life, between the ages of 17 and 21, living off and on in the city of Hebron, in which, if there's any symbol of how people do violence in the name of religion, it's there. And this is not just Muslims; this is Jews doing it, too.

It's so easy to get wrapped up in a messianic vision of how the world could be. I know it's easy, because I did it. It's so easy to see that messianic vision. You don't see what you're doing to get there. It's amazing how that big vision justifies some pretty bad stuff in the short term.

I don't know how we do it, because I know I don't want to walk away from the big thinking that religion provides, from the aspirations of a world in which there really is peace. Of course, I'm sure those terrorists would say they blew up those buildings to get peace and justice. I'm sure that's what they would say. I know the language inside of certain ultra-nationalist circles in the religious Zionist world. You're doing, we're doing these things so that there can be peace -- so justice, what's really ours, so right can win out. I mean, it's all the same language.

I don't know the solution to it. I just know that if you can't own that downside, if you can't own that shadow, if you can't own that the same things that motivate you to do great stuff can motivate you to do horrible stuff, then better not to be motivated at all. That's the question I come away with. I have to keep asking myself: Does religion serve any purpose at all anymore? Do we really need this thing that I love very much? Have we really proved that it can do more good than harm?

I understand the flip side is that the systems that got rid of religion -- Communism, Nazism -- they did a pretty bad job, too. So it's not that I'm going to get rid of one and then embrace some new "-ism." It's just that it seems to me, if you embrace an -ism -- and for me, the -ism I embrace probably most deeply is Judaism -- you better be in constant conversation with what the shadow side of what that -ism is. Otherwise, however good it looks, I promise it does bad stuff. ...

What is intoxicating and seductive about being [in a place like Hebron]? ...

Hebron is traditionally understood by rabbinic tradition of one of the four holiest cities in the land of Israel. It's the burial place of the matriarchs and the patriarchs -- of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Sarah and Rebecca and Leah. The site where they're buried has traded between being a mosque and a church many times in the last 1,800 years. For Jews to be able to go back to that place where the founding fathers and mothers are buried is unbelievable. To be able to go back to a place where, in 1929, Jews were run out of town in a pogrom is unbelievable. To be able to say, at the age of 18 or 19, "This is where I belong," is intoxicating after thousands of years of exile.

That's the feel. It's like you get drunk on messianism. You believe anything is possible, because you have all the answers. ... You are serving the state and you're serving God. You're a soldier and student. Everything comes together ... and now any of the barriers, oh, no, we'll get rid of those barriers. The only discussion is how gentle/how not gentle.

Until it got so out of control that people I knew committed murder, I really don't remember feeling that anything I just described to you was anything other than absolutely beautiful and made perfect sense. I don't think that I thought for a minute about the impact of my beliefs on other human beings who didn't share them. I don't think I thought about the implications. That was it. It was a self-justifying system. It all made sense on the inside. ...

I don't know if that would have changed for me if it hadn't gotten so out of control that it led to a Jewish underground that committed murder. I don't know that I would have noticed. No. I know I didn't notice when it was at the level of intimidation or beatings or other stuff. I didn't notice, and that's what I mean by intoxicating. You lose any other reference point except your own internal world, and my own internal world was the whole world.

I think that's what I finally got shaken up by -- the killing of other human beings. But until that moment, there was no gap between my internal world and the world, which by the way, is really quite beautiful when you're on the inside. You dance great in that world and you sing great in that world and you work hard in that world. You study hard in that world, because really everything is that world. There is nothing else, except there is. It was so profound for me that I had no intention of leaving Israel. I left Israel because I didn't know how to be in Israel when that world wasn't the whole world. ...

You know the worst part is, until it rose to the level of murder, I don't think I thought of it as violence. I don't think I thought of it as violence. That's why there are no easy answers about what those guys did in those airplanes [on Sept. 11]. You have to imagine being in a place where what other people [see] as violent behavior, you don't. You actually see it as redemptive.

And now it's dangerous; I don't want to create a moral equivalency between trying to create a settlement in a community that's unwanted, and flying airplanes into buildings. As much as I've changed, I don't believe those are equivalent -- they're not. But I do believe that, in the places and in the tradition that most calls me, I'd better take responsibility for the ability to generate not seeing others -- other people, other ideas -- not seeing the violence that could come from the motivations that start out good, that start out beautiful. ...

It's just that when I look at those terrorists, I don't see something wholly "other," because I know from my own life experience what it means to allow your most deeply felt beliefs to motivate you to do violent things to other people. Now, it's true, I haven't done anything even approaching that. I don't even think that Jewish terrorists have done -- and there are Jewish terrorists who are using the traditions I hold most dear to justify and to motivate their terror -- have done anything approaching that. But I'm not going to sit here and pretend it's wholly other, because it's not. When I look in their faces, I do see the shadow side of what were once some of my dreams and aspirations, and continue to be for some of my teachers from that time.

If I or any of us see [the Sept. 11 terrorists] as wholly other, it's as much not to take account of how our traditions generate violence and hatred, and a sense of, "We have all the answers, so we owe no one any accountability." If that's as good as religion can do, I don't want it. It's a hard thing to say, because I don't just love my tradition; I love the idea of religious experience. But if that's as good as it can do, you know, maybe that's over. ...

I hear a lot of discussion in the Jewish community about uniqueness and distinctiveness. What worries me is, what does that even mean? ... Uniqueness claims always end up being in some way about either moral superiority or having no accountability. I don't want to be a part of a tradition that uses its intellectual and spiritual resources to allow its members to feel either of those things.

So if Jews are uniquely victimized in the world, then it's amazing; we have no obligations. Hey, you can do anything to anyone, because you've been killed more than anyone. And if our traditions are morally superior, then whatever we do in the name of those traditions will be OK, because our traditions are superior.

So it always seems to me that what happens is, the claims about uniqueness and distinctiveness keep us from doing precisely what we should be doing, which is asking ourselves hard questions, as opposed to asking other people hard questions. If a people is only about its own replication and its own weakness and its own distinctiveness, that's a form of racism. I'm not Jewish to be Jewish so there will be more Jews. That's insanity. I'm Jewish because I tap into a kind of spiritual and intellectual tradition that helps me be the kind of human being I want to be. I hope will contribute to the world being a human world. If in any way I'm supposed to end up on top because of that, better let the whole thing go.

[Did religion cause Sept. 11? Did religion fly those planes into those buildings?]

At least some form of religion did, and pretending that it wasn't is a very dangerous lie we tell ourselves. ...

Religion drove those planes into those buildings. That's upsetting, but that's what happened. This idea that somehow that's not Islam, so we shouldn't worry is not only naïve; it's stupid. It's wrong. There's a very rich tradition which they delved into to justify what they did.

By the way, hating doing it and fighting against it ever happening again is also Islam, just like with the Jewish tradition. The guy who went into the mosque in the city of Hebron and murdered 29 human beings didn't do that out of the air. He had a deep connection to a tradition, a religious tradition in Judaism that pushed him there. Keeping him from doing it is also a serious religious tradition.

You don't sterilize these traditions and say "No, no, no, they don't do anything wrong." Because what's really going on when we do that is that we don't want-- If Islam is clean, and that's not real Islam, then I don't have to ask where is it real Jewish, and Christians don't have to ask where is it real Christian. The worst thing we can do is make some kind of compact where none of us admit the blood on our hands. What we really have to do is admit the blood on all of our hands -- not because it's equal blood, but because we've all been bloodied by these traditions, and wishing that it weren't so isn't going to change anything. ...

Actually, keeping this clean will divide the world between the religious who do this kind of stuff, and people who give up on religion, who don't [do this kind of stuff]. I actually believe there's a third alternative, which is, "Let's argue back into existence religious experience that keeps this stuff from happening." But we can't do that without owning that sometimes religion makes this stuff happen.

When you look inside a text like the Old Testament, [which story in the Hebrew Bible is most upsetting]?

Oh, it's such a long list. But ... to be able to own that-- It's a long list is why I love being Jewish. If someone told me they weren't disturbed by the stories, I'd actually want them out of the religion, because that's when the dangerous stuff happens. I know at least one of them -- and I'm sure it's connected, because we're talking Sept. 11 -- is the story of the binding of Isaac, in which ... the bottom line is, part of the process of Abraham becoming Abraham is his readiness to sacrifice his own son to God.

Now I understand that part of his becoming Abraham is also that it doesn't happen, and so that's as much a part of the story. Unfortunately, we end up either reading the end, in which, "Oh, see, happy ending," or the beginning, "See how ugly these stories are."

They're both part of the story, which teaches me that the impulse to do it is very real. That violence connected to God is a very real problem. While it went away in this one story, don't stop telling that story, because the problem with God and violence -- a feeling I'm hearing God's command and therefore anything is justified -- that's a real problem, and it doesn't ever go away. So it's a funny thing. The story is very problematic, and yet the presence of the story and knowing it's problematic is the solution, which is, the problem doesn't go away.

If you really think you're in contact with a God who speaks to you, you'd better be very careful. You have to be very careful, because where are the correctives? That's really what I'm always wrestling with: How do you feel religious passion and still have correctives in your life? Where does that come from? It's not that I want to give up on the passion. ...

How do you hold onto multiple answers? How do you hold onto conflicting positions and not let it drive you mad?

In the end, as trite as it may sound, I really think it comes from love. I think in the end, you have to feel so loved and loving and lovable and know that that's insurmountable -- that disagreement doesn't lead to denigration and destruction.

So what allows me to hold on is that, in the end, I really do believe fundamentally that human beings, both individually and collectively, can do magnificent things. Difference is going to be part of the package, even sometimes violent difference. I just I don't know too many people who are fundamentally happy who don't, at some level, get to a place where they can embrace complexity. I don't know too many people who are unhappy who can tolerate it. I'm not a psychologist. ... I just know that somehow there's a relationship between feeling your own inestimable worth and knowing that, because you're of infinite value, someone else could be also. ...

[Did Sept. 11 make you think differently about your mortality?]

The only way Sept. 11 made me think about my own mortality was it made me remember that, if it takes someone's dying to take stock of my own life, then I have a lot of inside work to do. So it didn't so much. It did for a lot of people around me that I spoke to But there's something [in] this, really, I know, that's unhealthy about that. If it takes others' death to make us more sensitive to life, we're doing something wrong. My life shouldn't be worth more or of more interest because someone else's got cut short. ...

[It seems like it was a wakeup call for a lot of people.]

Oh, I think it was a wakeup call. So for me, the real feeling of it being a wakeup call was that we've got something to address, because the wakeup call always seems to come as tragedy, and that's very upsetting. It's very upsetting for me as rabbi. ... Everyone ran to the church and the synagogue and everyone ran back. We ran in, because church and synagogue is where you go when you're in pain. Then when the pain subsides, you leave, because religion is about basically getting you over the hump.

But if our most humanizing moments only come from suffering and pain, something's off. That can't, that shouldn't be what humanizes us. Because at some level, if I'm going to be most human, most spiritual, most tuned in when someone else is suffering, then my spiritual identity is leveraged on someone else's pain. Any tradition which does that, including my own -- something's wrong.

My fantasy would have been everyone would have run out of synagogue in the weeks following and then outside had the conversations, "Well, now how do we go back in so they can be credible?" How is religion going to be credible now, as opposed to running in and getting really a version of the old-time religion, which is as responsible for the problem as it is for the solution? So everyone should have run out, said, "We know it doesn't work this way, but we know we have these feelings inside of us. We want to be connected, we want spirituality, we want community. How do we walk back in with integrity?"

It's too soon to tell, but do you think this has been an ephemeral blip on the screen? Or there are some sea changes?

I don't know if it represents a sea change. I'll tell you what my intuition is. [Coming] off of Sept. 11, I think whatever change there is, it's individual and internal. If it can't also be in the institutions, that's not going to be helpful for most people, and I don't see it happening in the institutions. I believe it's really real for people as individuals. But if the institutions actually fight against it, then it won't help.

People are thinking differently about God and religion and meaning and their faith and their destiny, and basically they're walking in and getting the same-old, same-old. Because if you really take questions of fate and destiny and meaning and community and spirituality seriously, the one thing that's certain is that the spiritual institutions won't be the same after that.

But institutions are very conservative places. So we actually need institutions to say, "No, you're not the same, and so we can't ever be the same again. So let's start where you're different, not where how our answers can make you like you were before."

That's the issue. It's that I really think change is possible, but it won't be about going back to before Sept. 11. It's about, in light of that experience, how do we imagine our future, knowing it's going to be different; it's going to be different? We don't talk about things the same way. I don't talk about things the same way. Now the question is, can we get people together and actually form communities and institutions that are connected and rooted and grounded in the past and in all the richness that come with these different traditions? ...

Most people I know after Sept. 11 are talking about God differently. Most rabbis I know, not so much. For me, when institutions are separated from the real life experience of the people, those institutions have little, if any, purpose.

So the question isn't going to, be how do you get people who are talking differently about God post-Sept. 11 to talk the way they used to, or the way they're supposed to? It's, how do you help them talk in light of their tradition -- whatever tradition they want to connect to? ...

I think since Sept. 11, people are feeling the gap between what they want to believe, because it will make them more comfortable, and what they can believe, given the horror they've seen. They really feel that split. They want to be taken care of and nurtured and guaranteed that the world is just and safe. And they turn on the news and they can't quite believe that. Unless we can make both of those real for people, both that it's OK to want that belief, yet it feels so incredibly unsustainable -- not to try and fix it, not to show, "Well, you know, you can really believe that old-time belief." Or, "No, you really should give up on God altogether," but that they're both real. ...

I think what happened for a lot of people up until Sept. 11 -- people thought what I call the "Hebrew school God," the "Sunday school God," was unsustainable. So God-talk in general wasn't so interesting for them. Spirit talk wasn't so helpful for them, and the people for whom it was, the Hebrew school God worked, by and large. Now I know lots and lots of people for whom neither of those categories fit. They want God talk and spirit talk, and they want it with integrity. They want their community and their traditions, but the Hebrew school God just don't cut it.

So where do you go to thrash that out, which, for me, is what I want religion to be? Where do you go to have the experiences that make you feel safe enough so you can embrace that kind of insecurity? Where do you find communities that are supportive enough to know that we're all feeling insecure about these big questions? And not to put in fake security and shallow answers, and not to walk away from the questions, but to create the safety to feel the insecurity.

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